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Dubas Waffles on Qualifying P.O Joseph, Penguins Future in Question

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Pittsburgh Penguins, P.O Joseph

LAS VEGAS — It may have seemed like a slam dunk, but according to Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas, the return of restricted free agent defenseman P.O Joseph is uncertain, and Dubas will be looking around the league for better values before deciding to extend a qualifying offer before the Sunday 5 p.m. deadline.

It was a low-key shocker Friday afternoon before the first round of the 2024 NHL Draft. What might have seemed to be a given since Joseph finished the season as a top-pair defenseman could go the other way. In fact, based on Dubas’s comments, there is a very real chance that Joseph is not qualified, thus becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Penguins director of hockey operations and legal affairs Vukie Mpofu has been negotiating with Joseph’s camp, but Dubas’s tone indicated the player has little leverage in the situation.

“Vukie is continuing to talk to the P.O’s representatives. I think the defense market of those types of free agents has been quite interesting,” said Dubas. “A lot of the players are not getting qualified. There’s an arbitration element that is important to us. And cap space. So you’re trying to measure the players that aren’t going to be qualified.”

Currently, Joseph is an RFA with arbitration rights, and the latter half of that sentence is the problem. In arbitration, Joseph could tout his first-pairing status to command a higher salary than Dubas is willing to offer. And there is the question of whether Joseph ever really escaped coach Mike Sullivan’s doghouse after pulling himself out before a game in November against Carolina.

Joseph struggled in the first two months of the season and was in and out of the lineup. Exacerbating the situation, he cited an injury before he was to be reinserted in November. Sullivan openly admitted it was the player who pulled himself out of the lineup; the candid comments only furthered speculation about Joseph’s future.

Joseph didn’t play from Nov. 4 to Dec. 12 but only played three games in December. However, all seemed to be forgiven when Joseph became a fixture in the Penguins’ lineup in January, eventually joining defenseman Kris Letang on the top pairing in March. After months of defenseman Ryan Graves’ struggles and inconsistency, Joseph seized the role as the Penguins’ fortunes turned from a somber death march to a playoff charge.

But it seems Dubas is looking around before making an offer he might come to regret because of an arbitration award. According to AFP Analytics, Joseph’s projection is a two-year deal worth about $1.9 million per season.

“So you’re trying to measure the players that aren’t going to be qualified. The other players (that) are going to get to free agency to see if you go down that path, what is that cap space,” Dubas said. “What type of player do we have? (Are other potential free agents) better or equal? Can we get the same for less money?”

In contrast, Dubas said the Penguins would qualify RFA Corey Andonovski, who spent the entire season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Andonovski, 25, completed his second full season with WBS after three seasons of college hockey at Princeton.

The Penguins’ other RFA with arbitration rights is depth forward Emil Bemstom. Dubas also said the team has had conversations with Bemstrom but not indicate a decision. Bemstrom did not make an impact with the team after being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jacket in exchange for Alex Nylander. Bemstrom is unlikely to receive a qualifying offer after scoring just five points (3-2-5) in 24 games.

If a player is not qualified, he may still sign a contract of his choosing with his current team but would otherwise be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.